Written by Kay Steiger for RHRealityCheck.org – Information, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
This fall, amid furor over the election of Barack Obama to the presidency and Democrats’ widened majority in Congress, three states quietly defeated anti-choice ballot measures, California, Colorado, and South Dakota.
Of these, perhaps South Dakota is the most perplexing. South Dakota is a state with a small population and very few cities. Although the state hasn’t been polled on abortion except for how they might vote on the 2004 and 2008 abortion ban measures, even pro-choice advocates in the state readily admit that the majority of the state would self-identify as pro-life. John McCain and Sarah Palin easily won the state this fall, and an abortion ban with no exceptions passed with vast majority in both houses of the state legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Mike Rounds more than two years ago. To the surprise of the pro-choice movement, the state overturned the ban in a November 2006 referendum by a wide margin. Exit polls suggested that many voters were uncomfortable with the lack of exceptions for a woman’s health and life written into the ban. A poll by the Argus Leader, South Dakota’s largest newspaper, run shortly after the 2006 abortion ban defeat, showed that a vast majority — by a 28-point margin — would support a ban with exceptions.
So the pro-life movement in South Dakota gave it another shot. They put an abortion ban with vague exceptions on the ballot this fall and looked forward to seeing it sail to victory. Less than a month before the election, a poll showed voters split evenly on the measure, 44-44 percent, and 12 percent were still undecided. On Election Day, the measure was defeated by 10 points, 54 to 44 percent. So how does a state, in which most voters would probably still identify as pro-life, manage to defeat abortion bans twice?
This was a question recently explored in an article by Denise Ross in The New Republic. Ross concludes that "revisiting the debate over four years and consumed by it throughout 2006, [the state's electorate] has just gotten so educated on the issue that they are now uncomfortable with black-and-white formulations that bans contain." Indeed, the region’s Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice coalition South Dakota Healthy Families used language and messaging very different from national pro-choice groups.
Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, credits the win to a well-run campaign with broad grassroots support. But it wasn’t a strategy run only by outside consultants, with slick advertisements and catch phrases like "My Body, My Choice" or "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries." In fact, the word "choice" was abandoned by the coalition fighting the abortion ban in South Dakota altogether. Instead, the coalition took a pro-family approach, using the word "baby" where mainstream pro-choice groups would have used the word "fetus." One Healthy Families ad featured a woman named Tiffany Campbell, who appeared with her husband and son. In the television ad, Campbell explained that during her pregnancy they discovered twin-to-twin syndrome, a condition in which one fetus would need to be terminated for the other to survive. Campbell phrased it this way, "I would have buried two babies." Much of the language in the ads talked about families making decisions without government interference.
"We were completely ready to and did redraft all of the usual rhetoric that is used by people on our side," Stoesz said. She noted a lot of feminists on the national level were upset at a pro-choice campaign that would abandon rhetoric built on for decades, but Stoesz isn’t sorry she abandoned the rhetoric. "As the head of Planned Parenthood [in the region] I’m responsible for keeping the sole abortion clinic in South Dakota open and I’m responsible for making sure there is a strong base of support for women’s reproductive health in South Dakota," she said. "South Dakota isn’t Manhattan. It isn’t San Francisco. It isn’t even Chicago and it’s not even Minneapolis. It’s so different. The culture is so different."
The coalition looked to open up a discussion and stay away from polarizing debates. They wanted to humanize abortion in a way that had rarely been seen in a campaign. Stoesz talked about how during the campaign in 2006, many national feminist groups criticized their messaging for saying that the ban went "too far" because it did not contain exceptions, implying that a ban with exceptions would be acceptable. "That made people very uncomfortable. But we had to start there," Stoesz said. Instead of casting actors in their ads, they used real South Dakota women who were willing to share their stories. "This had started in 2006 spontaneously on its own," Stoesz said. "People began telling their stories about abortion to one another in South Dakota in a way that doesn’t happen in any other place in the country. I’m just not aware of any other community, certainly not state, that has engaged in a lengthy and meaningful discussion about abortion. But that [has] happened in South Dakota now for over two years."
The campaign tapped local women like Campbell to appear in their ads and tried to get those that might otherwise identify as pro-life to talk with women in their communities about abortion. Stoesz found that people who were morally opposed to abortion found that "women and families who choose to have abortions are not that different from themselves."
Stoesz thinks this is a sign that the pro-choice movement needs to put aside some of the choice-based language it has been using for years. "This proves conclusively that it’s time to give up the old rhetoric and use language that is empathic and that people relate to," she said. "People don’t like to be bullied. There’s a large portion of people who are morally uncomfortable with abortion but don’t want to ban it."
Nathan Peterson, director of the South Dakota Healthy Families campaign since 2006 and lifelong South Dakota resident, noted that South Dakota, like many other conservative states with large rural areas, might not fall neatly along party lines.
"There are certainly large numbers of Democrats in South Dakota that voted in favor of the abortion ban and, in a similar fashion, large numbers of Republicans that voted against it. It’s not necessarily tied to a political party in South Dakota," Peterson said. Volunteers who canvassed in the state didn’t simply find that people were pro- or anti-choice. "When we were training our volunteers and when we were training our staff we knew that we could knock on five different doors and find five different points of view on this issue. It wasn’t going to serve us well to take one particular stance on abortion and try to convince those five people that they should think the exact same way," he said.
Of course, it helped the campaign that the legislation was badly written and raised a lot of questions about exactly how much access the government would get to medical records. Peterson found that it was especially helpful to focus on these concrete consequences of the legislation. "The 2008 law in particular, we talked about how section 18 of [the proposed abortion ban] would have forced doctors to turn over their patients’ complete medical records to the state department of health," Peterson said. "It would essentially give the government access to our personal medical information. We were able to make much more progress in convincing people that, whatever personal opinion on abortion might be, trying to pass this kind of legislation would have disastrous consequences." Eventually, by raising the question of state interference and by offering stories of real women who talked about their decisions, the campaign seemed to prove to voters that no "health exception" would be sufficient to protect women’s health.
The campaign found support in surprising areas of the state. "Many would consider the Western portion of South Dakota more conservative. In the Western half of the state Republicans enjoy a larger registration advantage, for example," Peterson explained. "[But] We had much more support in the Western part of the state than in the Eastern part of the state and I think that’s because some of that libertarian mindset. Whatever an individual’s personal opinion may be [on abortion] it starts a very bad precedent to start letting government dictate what medical decisions people can and can’t make."
For now, Healthy Families has committed to staying organized in the state since supporters of the abortion ban have made statements that they might try again. The Vote Yes For Life website says, "We shall rise and fight again." But people in South Dakota, now after more than four years of intense discussion and debate over abortion seem tired of it. "Everyone in the state now wants to work toward reducing unintended pregnancies and improving education," Peterson said. "They would rather reduce incidences of unintended pregnancy than rehash the same divisive debate."
Abortion will remain legal in South Dakota. Stoesz and the Healthy Families coalition were successful in defeating a ban that positioned itself as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Perhaps now, instead of rerunning the same old abortion debate, the debate about comprehensive sex education and increased family planning can begin.
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